Get Your Fish Out of the Tree: 3 Ways to Get Capable People in the Right Roles to Grow Your Firm

“It’s more important to do big things well than to do the small things perfectly.”

–Ray Dalio

As leaders, we pride ourselves on being resourceful, agile, and generally fast-moving. Much of the time, this is an admirable trait that yields decent results. On the other hand, there are moments when the fast or easy or most convenient action invisibly works against your intentions, slowing growth, profitability, and progress.

The most damaging of these moments involves people decisions—specifically who to put in which seat as your organization grows. I’ll say unequivocally that Mr. or Ms. “right now” rarely leads to Mr. or Ms. “right” in any role over time.

You would never reasonably expect a fish to climb a tree because it doesn’t have the capability.  Yet, in effect, many leaders do just that: they expect people without the right capability to succeed when they fill an organizational role with a “right now” person. 

For example, think about:

  • the customer service representative who is promoted to run marketing because he’s the most interested in taking the role;
  • the tenured, loyal employee who is asked to become operations manager because the founder feels like she’s the fastest learner on staff; and
  • the newly hired accounting director who never managed people before, but whose salary was affordable and who seemed “ready for the next step” in their career.

Each of these relatively common scenarios reveals incremental thinking and relies upon a hope-based plan for success, neither of which accelerates growth, impact, and scale. The hallmark of this approach is to focus on capacity, that is, “I think they can do the job,” rather than capability which is more about “They’ve done this or are already doing this, so they will be successful.”

As your organization grows, here are three ways to avoid “right now” thinking, to focus on capability, and to put the right people in the right seats as you fill key roles.

(Note: All names in this article have been changed to maintain confidentiality)

1. Hire Someone Who Has Already Succeeded in the Role

The Problem:

My client Fred is the founder and CEO of a 20-year-old firm in the technology sector. Over the years, Fred and his largely home-grown leadership team struggled to stay profitable as they scaled. 

Although an impressive visionary and relationship guy, Fred struggled with his operational responsibilities, avoided conflict, and failed to hold others accountable for results. The leadership team was unsuccessful solving the firm’s cultural, accountability, and performance problems that grew with their scale: They avoided “rocking the boat” with too much change and lacked the leadership experience to know what would work.

What costly and/or frustrating issues persist in your firm?

Where might you have the wrong person (including yourself!) in one of your key roles?

The Solution:

About a year ago, Fred reached his limit and became exhausted hearing the same stories and dealing with the same issues as his minimally profitable firm slowly scaled. He also acknowledged his own inability and dislike of holding others operationally accountable. Fred committed to make a significant leadership change: he decided to hire a President to operate the firm.

The first step in the process was to create a detailed role scorecard for the new President position while modifying the CEO scorecard to accommodate. Among the must-have capabilities: industry leadership experience, including having scaled and successfully sold a business. He realized that the person he needed would be a big player requiring a well-considered compensation plan, so Fred engaged an executive compensation specialist to help him get it right to entice the right candidate to join the team. Scorecard and compensation framework in hand, Fred began tapping into his vast network to get the word out.

The new President with every bit of experience Fred sought was hired about six months later. Within three months, the value of Fred’s big move became abundantly clear. New and different questions were being asked, accountability improved, and an operational turnaround was clearly underway. Although costly, the experience of the new President paid immediate dividends in numerous ways. Fred’s bigger thinking, indeed, yielded much bigger results.

How could someone from outside your firm who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish accelerate your growth and help you scale?

2. Pay More for More Experience

The Problem:

Carla had a big idea and founded an agency dedicated to helping others build their online presence to amplify their message and cause. She and her small start-up team had landed a solid core of clients, including some well-known names and brands. Although the business was profitable and scaling, Carla had to be careful to balance acquiring new staff with the income from their new and anticipated clients.

About a year ago, client demand dictated the necessity to hire an additional Account Manager. Their financial condition was still tight, so Carla decided to follow the same hiring pattern she used in the past and embarked on a search for a relatively inexpensive entry-level or junior Account Manager.

During the team’s search to fill the role, they were introduced to a candidate whose compensation requirements were almost 2 times the amount they allocated. This candidate wasn’t only more expensive, he was also strongly recommended, more senior, and highly experienced.

Where is a scarcity mindset affecting your decisions as a leader?

Do you hire junior-level staff because that’s what you need or because that’s what you can afford?

The Solution:

With some prodding from their coach, Carla and her team reevaluated their budget for the role to account for the anticipated value the more senior-level hire would bring and, with some trepidation, decided to make the hire.

The new Account Manager began making a positive impact within his first week on the job. Carla discovered that she and her Operations Manager were able to hand off more tasks to their newest employee than they anticipated, including several that were quite strategic in nature. This freed them to invest even more of their time to grow the firm.

Further, because of his experience and mature relationship capabilities, the Account Manager quickly ingratiated himself to the firm’s demanding clients whose experience working with the firm improved thanks to his leadership.

As she reflected on her decision to spend more for the more senior Account Manager several months later, Carla said: “This was probably the best business decision I ever made. I now realize how limiting it was when I ran my business with ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ thinking!”

How could a more expensive, more capable person change the game as your next new hire?

3. Promote from Within after Capability in the New Role is Proven

The Problem:

My client Tom built a profitable, successful firm providing both required and discretionary educational programs to certain practicing professionals. Although, like many scaling entrepreneurs, he created his leadership team organically over time by elevating high performers, Tom also invested heavily in their growth as managers and leaders. His strategy worked and yielded both a high-functioning team and business growth to match.

Several years ago, Tom, a classic prone-to distraction entrepreneur, decided to spend more time thinking bigger and pursuing additional business opportunities. Like my other client Fred, Tom also realized that his strengths were creative and strategic, not operational—and yet, he occupied an operational leadership role in his firm. It was time to change the roles on the leadership team.

Judy ran the programming team at the firm and, over time, had grown into an exceptional manager, leader, and coach to her own staff and to her colleagues on the leadership team. Although Tom’s instincts were to ask Judy to take on a bigger operational leadership role, he wasn’t sure she was ready.

How significantly do you invest in the growth of your organization’s managers and leaders?

When was the last time you reevaluated and optimized the roles on your leadership team?

The Solution:

Tom chose to follow his instincts and opened a dialog with Judy to assess her willingness and readiness to play a larger leadership role as COO (Chief Operations Officer). She was open to it, but not totally confident she was ready.

In response, Tom asked Judy to read Gino Wickman and Mark Winters’ book “Rocket Fuel” with him, so the two of them could navigate, discuss, and agree to how they would potentially work together as CEO and COO. In the book, Wickman and Winters utilize the terms “Visionary” and “Integrator” to conceptually separate the two roles and offer both structure and rhythms to optimize the productivity of the relationship while minimizing the potential for dysfunction and drama, as can often occur.

As they read and discussed the book over several months, both Judy’s and Tom’s confidence in the leadership transition grew. Before any change was made or announced, the two of them gained the insight, clarity, and operational structure that stacked the deck in favor of a smooth transition and a successful outcome.

By the time Judy’s promotion was announced to the organization, Tom, Judy and the leadership team were primed and ready to operate in their new reporting relationships and accountabilities. Judy continued to grow into the role and quickly became appreciated even more by the leadership team as her operational instincts enhanced the team’s ability to execute and achieve their plans. In the meantime, Tom, now relieved of his operational role, found himself energized as he shifted his focus to look ahead and think strategically about the future of the business.

How can you engage and develop your people to build the capability for success in a more senior role?


It would be crazy to expect a fish to climb a tree and yet, in effect, that’s what many entrepreneurs and leaders do as they fill newly created roles in their growing firms. They employ “right now,” incremental logic and then wonder why the growth and scale they aspire to remains elusive.

The three solutions I’ve outlined here require bigger thinking, a focus on capability, and an investment mindset. After all, you cannot reasonably expect a return without first making an investment! And, yes, that entails some degree of risk—but risk can be managed in exchange for an expected higher return, particularly if you are hiring more senior, more experienced people and/or others who have already achieved the outcomes you seek.

Consider and answer the questions I’ve posed in each of the three scenarios, then find a way to think and act differently to fill the next key role that opens at your firm. As always, a good mentor, peer group members, or a qualified coach can help you self-assess, commit, and act.

Retired US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford once said: “When you have to make a choice between capacity and capability, I would go with capability.”  I would too!


Upcoming Leadership Learning Events…

Live Online Class – Essential Skills and Tools for Scaling Your Business

Are you ready to beat the odds and scale to significance? Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live online classroom, and learn proven, sustainable techniques to think more clearly, operate more predictably, and scale your business faster and more profitably. In this highly acclaimed class, you will:

  • Understand how to overcome three significant barriers that derail most growing firms
  • Discover four productive leadership habits that rapidly accelerate growth and success 
  • Master two techniques that dramatically improve the predictability of your performance and results

Upcoming Class: December 23, 2021. Learn more and sign up!


Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom!

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Class: January 10, 2022. Learn more and register!


More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

Please follow and like us: